Guilt hides hollow heart

Staff WriterAugust 30, 2005 

Near the end of "The Constant Gardener," Ralph Fiennes' title protagonist visits an African village where Pete Postlethwaite's world-weary doctor hips him as to how villagers manage to scrape by with the medical provisions they get: "This entire machine is fueled by guilt."

He could also be referring to the movie itself, which lays on its liberal guilt just enough to make people overlook the real truth: "Gardener" isn't that magnificent of a flick.

Currently being universally hailed as "a thriller with brains," it's surprising how many critics are overlooking the fact that "Gardener" is a formulaic, histrionic thriller served up in edgy-looking clothing. It's the film equivalent of getting swap-meet jewelry in a Cartier box.

"Gardener" gets fancied up with the help of Fernando Meirelles, the director of the mesmeric "City of God." Whoever had the idea to have him helm this film must've gotten a promotion by now. For a while there, Meirelles' anxious, shaky-cam photography throws you off the scent of just how average this globe-trotting whodunit really is. But eventually, the story reveals its unnerving mediocrity.

The "Gardener" in question is Justin Quayle (Fiennes), a meek, British diplomat with a green thumb who goes on a personal mission to uncover who killed his wife, an ardently opinionated activist named Tessa (Rachel Weisz), during a trip to Northern Kenya. Told in a nonlinear fashion, "Gardener" trips back-and-forth in telling the Justin-and-Tessa saga. They meet at a speaking engagement, where a passionate verbal exchange somehow leads to a passionate exchange in the bedroom. Meirelles shoots Fiennes and Weisz's slo-mo love scenes as though they were European perfume commercials.

Tessa goads Justin to take her to Africa as she ruffles feathers and attempts to save every life she can. In a heated scene, he finds her to be more obsessed with her work, which mostly involved trips with a male, black doctor she was rumored to be involved with, than their marriage.

Since the movie is adapted from a John le Carre novel, the intrigue starts bubbling fast, as Quayle starts discovering the secrets Tessa kept from him and the danger she was involved in. It doesn't take long for the fight she was a part of, which involved exposing a global conspiracy, which includes a pharmaceutical conglomerate, corrupt British bigwigs, AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics and lots of dead Africans, becomes his own.

About halfway through "Gardener," I was bugging out about why Fiennes' character is so intent on carrying on a crusade for a woman who hid everything about herself and probably didn't love him the way he loves her. It seemed everybody knew what was going on in her life except him. I was practically expecting him to start murmuring about how much of a fool he was, just like Orson Welles did in his "The Lady from Shanghai." "Everybody is somebody's fool," Welles' Michael O'Hara said in that movie. "Gardener" would've been more digestible if Quayle had admitted that.

And yet, Quayle holds his head high, bouncing from continent to continent, dodging oily, limey shady characters (played by the oily likes of Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Gerard McSorley), getting to the bottom of why his boo got snuffed, all for undying love. It's worth noting that Fiennes works wonders keeping a strong-willed presence even though he's playing a character that's generally weak as water.

While critics have been saying that Fiennes and Weisz make a magnetic couple, I actually found Fiennes and Meirelles to be quite the fetching pair. Meirelles invests more in catching Fiennes at every angle, getting every last emotion, than he does in most of the rest of the film, which is deceptively textbook right down to its preachy finale.

I'd love to see Fiennes and Meirelles work together again -- in a film that's actually as great as everybody says it is.

Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760 or clindsey@newsobserver.com.

Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760 or clindsey@newsobserver.com.

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